There are similarities between Brazil and other South American boom economies – like a growing middle class and higher expectations for public services.
RIO DE JANEIRO; and Santiago, Chile
Across the Americas, and even at home in Brazil, many were surprised by the quick surge in protests that brought millions to the streets in 80 cities across the country last week. Protesting everything from World Cup spending to transportation costs, the explosion of demonstrations has started to slow since President Dilma Rousseff promised reforms Friday evening.
But many of the conditions present in Brazil that may have fed into the uprisings can also be found in other South American boom economies, such as a growing middle class, poor public services, and widespread political corruption. Does the unrest in Brazil augur broad rebellions in other countries?
Not likely, analysts say.
Sure, there are similarities. A decade of natural resource-driven growth has reduced poverty and created a consumption-happy middle class from Tierra del Fuego to the Caribbean. It has also left much of the public frustrated with the persistence of corruption, moribund political parties, underfunded schools, and the unfulfilled promise of ending poverty.
And protests – though of a different scale – already take place regularly in the region. From the cost of education in Chile to mining in Peru, demonstrations are frequent, but for the most part expressed in less concentrated, overwhelming movements. “Protests are not new in the region,” says Thiago Aragao, director of Latin American political risk at Brazil-based Arko Advice.
However, the size and scope of what’s happening in Brazil – combined with the fact that this is the first large-scale uprising seen there since 1992 – is uniquely tied to the current events taking place there.
The World Cup “has served as the physical motivation for Brazilians, showing them how their government is capable of spending billions in a fast track program [for sports and entertainment], but unable to achieve the same improvements in other areas such as health and education,” Mr. Aragao says.
Since 2002, Brazil has seen huge annual growth, wage increases, and low unemployment that lifted some 35 million people out of poverty. But high taxes, poor services, and a generation of more globally mobile citizens have also taught Brazilians to expect more from a country rich in oil and natural resources, says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
It’s a theme that can be seen woven throughout protests already taking place across the region in recent years. A 7 percent rise in transit fares tipped the Brazil protests, for example. “In health, education, and transportation,” says Andrés Gomez-Lobo, an economist at the University of Chile, “expectations will always be above what you can do.”
In Chile, which joined the OECD club of 34 advanced economies in 2010, a push for education reform caught fire two years ago as students found their expected upward mobility tamped down by debt and a for-profit educational model that reinforces class divisions. Even today, fifty high schools across the country are occupied by protesting students, in generally peaceful demonstrations. With as many as 200,000 people marching and drumming through several cities at once, the movement has had similarities to Brazil. But other than groups of vandals and bottle-throwers, the marches have been overwhelmingly peaceful and have generally ended by dinnertime. The government has reformed student loans and the current presidential race is dominated by the debate over education. The movement in Chile has also successfully found a unified voice in protest leader Camila Vallejo, who will run for the national legislature in November.
In Brazil, beyond the concrete call to lower public transportation costs – which the movement already successfully achieved last week – grievances are disparate and varied, and some question how long the protests can be sustained without a core mission and leadership.
“We need to stop and think about what we’re doing now,” says Cristal Moniz, a young teacher who lives in Copacabana. “We’ve had 500 years of problems. It’s not all going to be solved overnight.”
In a speech on Friday, President Rousseff unveiled a package of reforms, which included spending oil royalties on education and bolstering health services with foreign doctors. Protests are expected to continue this week, though few expect turnout to reach the same height of millions mobilized across the country.
In superficial ways, Colombia has a lot in common with Brazil, as both have boosted oil production and developed thriving, innovative cities in recent years. But in the Andean country, everything about protesting is tinted with the country’s decades-long guerrilla war and its series of conservative presidents, says Edwin Cruz Rodriguez, a post-doctoral scholar who teaches about social conflict at the National University of Colombia in Bogota.
Those factors make Colombia’s movements different from those in Brazil, he says. For starters, Colombians are very concerned about keeping the peace and avoiding any appearance of violence, in part to avoid a crackdown by police, but also because of the history of conflict there.
The protests in Brazil garnered a bump in support after police used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators and journalists early last week. Though the majority of protesters have remained peaceful, there have been acts of violence and destruction of property by both demonstrators and law enforcement.
Also, while Brazilians told political parties they were unwelcome at street protests, Colombian student and peasant demands are largely channeled through old political parties, Mr. Rodriguez says.
“There’s the Communist Party, the old left. They have tried to organize the social movements,” he says. “They still have more influence. There are no indignados in Colombia,” he says, referring to the spontaneous rallies that took over Spanish cities in the summer of 2011, which according to some analysts were a precedent for the Brazilian protests.
Where in Brazil, there may be a dissolution with left-wing promises, the series of right-wing governments under former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and now President Juan Manuel Santos mean “we aren’t there yet,” he says.
In Peru, waves of road blockades and mine strikes hit every year. Peasants are currently fighting the government and Newmont Mining Corp. over construction of the country’s biggest new gold mine, and in Lima, there were riots last year when the mayor shut down a long-standing informal wholesale market. But a unified movement is unlikely there as well, says Jose Luis Sardon, dean of the law school at the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences.
Peru’s government has given the public fewer false expectations than that of Brazil, says Mr. Sardon, who writes on social conflict.
Then, there is the role of soccer. Brazil’s spending on the World Cup added fuel to public anger in protests last week. The Brazilian economy has sputtered for the past two years, making the public resent the $14 billion price tag of hosting the megaevent. When Venezuela built a series of soccer stadiums for the 2007 Americas Cup tournament, it had the good timing to do so while the economy was surging and the government was opening new universities and clinics.
But as analysts explained why they don’t foresee Brazil-style movements in other countries, they kept hesitating, avoiding absolutes. No one, after all, expected the Brazilian movements to take off, either.